Tonal and textural nuance are reproduced effectively as well. Another recording that I was happy to hear for the umpteenth time was Paavo Järvi’s reading of L’histoire du soldat from an all-Stravinsky PentaTone SACD, again ripped to DSF. The exquisite sonorities that Stravinsky created with only seven instruments at his disposal are extraordinary, and a good recording played back through the A10 lets a listener know it. There’s no question that this L’histoire employs a cornet (as specified in the score) rather than a trumpet—the former having a mellower, more rounded tone as opposed to the latter’s brassier, more incisive sound. The clarinet and bassoon that open the “Pastorale” are correctly scaled and the sonority produced by clarinet playing in its middle (or “clarion”) register and bassoon in its upper range is memorable—and clearly just what the composer had in mind. Likewise, on his 1990 release Alone with Three Giants, pianist Marcus Roberts honors three great composer/pianists—Jelly Roll Morton, Duke Ellington, and Thelonius Monk—with solo performances of their music. Roberts plays some selections on a Steinway grand and some on a Young Chang upright, and the difference in the density and magnitude of the sound those two instruments produce is quite evident, as is the reasoning behind the artist’s choice of piano for each song.
More reference tracks. Joni’s Mitchell’s voice on “Little Green” from 1971’s Blue has the youthful purity that was so riveting early in her career, possessing just the right character for the singer’s slightly husky chest notes as well her more girlish head tones. The syncopated hitch to Mitchell’s voice that creates a rhythmic counterpoint to the guitar accompaniment is very apparent. Throughout my favorite set of the 15 Shostakovich string quartets, the series of SACDs from the Mandelring Quartet on the Audite label, the ingenious construction of these masterworks is on full display. With the A10 in service, one marvels at the way the four voices come together to become something considerably more than the sum of its parts. “Never Weather Beaten Sail,” as performed by the dozen young singers of the early music vocal ensemble Stile Antico and heard on a rip from a Harmonia Mundi SACD, reveals the flawless blend and responsiveness to text that made such a powerful impression on the two occasions I’ve heard these artists live.
Very dynamic music was handled confidently—the drama of the opening pages of Puccini’s Turandot (Decca’s recording with Sutherland and Pavarotti) or the cacophonous beginning to the title track on Steely Dan’s Everything Must Go. I finished several listening sessions with the MQA’d version of Billy Idol’s “White Wedding,” theoretically to check on midbass dynamics, but mostly just because it was fun to listen to “White Wedding” with the Aurender crunching the numbers.
Could the sound of the A10 be improved upon? Definitely. If you own any of a number of über DACs—products from Berkeley, dCS, etc.—your investment will not go to waste, should the Aurender find a home in your system thanks to its carefully shielded USB 2.0 output. The AK4490 chipset in the A10 is an excellent performer but the “double symmetrical circuit” that involves eight 32-bit Burr-Brown converters in my T+A DAC 8 DSD is at another level entirely, with obvious improvements in transparency, spatiality, and both micro- and macro-dynamics. The T+A is a bargain at $3995 but still increases the cost of a digital file playback system by 75% over the A10 itself for, what, a 25% improvement in sonics? The A10 as a stand-alone product is a damn good value.
There’s a potential stealth benefit to owning an Aurender A10, and it has to do with the unheralded optical digital input on the rear panel. As silver discs become less and less relevant to many listeners, it’s harder for many audiophile consumers to get terribly enthusiastic about spending a lot on a new CD player. Yet those sound-conscious music lovers want to continue to explore their CD/SACD collections, even as they ramp up their commitment to HD downloads and streaming for musical nourishment. Well, if your long-in-the-tooth disc player has an optical output, with the A10 around you could find yourself with a world-class disc-playing system on your hands. I used a $30 generic optical cable to connect an Oppo BDP-93 to the A10 and the result was impressive with all musical styles, at least as good as hooking the Oppo transport up to my Anthem D2v pre-pro. Aurender’s set-up diagram (“Typical System Configuration”) doesn’t even acknowledge the possibility of connecting a disc player to the A10 via its optical input. It’s as if the company feels that supporting disc playback is embarrassingly primitive, at odds with the promotional copy that describes the A10 as “the perfect solution for those replacing CD players.” For many audiophiles, the move to files and streaming will be incremental. They probably won’t take the time or expense to rip and tag the hundreds or thousands of silver discs they own but will still want to enjoy that music when the mood strikes. The ability of the A10 to accept a digital datastream from a disc transport and see it through beautifully to analog will be a huge selling point for many listeners.
No audio product, especially a digital one, is “future-proof.” But one can imagine that the Aurender A10 is what digital playback will look like in ten or fifteen years for a consumer who values superior build-quality and good sound but would like to avoid as many boxes and cables as possible. We can conjecture that this consumer has held on to his CDs and is gladly accepting the dust-covered collections of friends who no longer have the capacity to play them. He streams, of course, doesn’t download all that much anymore—nobody does—but has a sizable collection of HD files that he amassed in his early years in computer audio. Maybe MQA is flourishing and our forward-looking audiophile is admired for being an early adopter. The Aurender A10 he bought back in 2017 is looking more and more like the smartest audio purchase he ever made.
Specs & Pricing
Type: Caching network music server/player
Formats supported: PCM up to 32-bit/384 kHz; DSD64, DSD128, DoP mode; MQA full decoder
Outputs: Digital, USB 2.0; Analog, unbalanced (RCA) and balanced (XLR)
Drive capacity: SSD for system and cache, 120GB; music storage, 4TB
Streaming services: Tidal, Qobuz
Dimensions: 16.93" x 2.2" x 13.9"
Weight: 22.5 lbs.
AURENDER AMERICA INC.
2519 W. Woodland Drive
Anaheim, CA 92801